A Brief History of Nuclear Power in Italy

Federico Rossi
March 18, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

The Post-War Boom: Italy Turns to Nuclear Power

Fig. 1. Top: Electric power production in Italy by source, 1883-2014. Bottom: Energy mix for electric power production, 1883-2014. [9] (Source: F. Rossi)

In the years following the end of World War II, Italy experienced a prolonged period of sustained economic growth, dubbed "il miracolo economico" (the "economic miracle") by economists and historians alike. [1] As the country's industrial sector grew, stimulated by foreign aid and relaxed export regulations within Europe, so did Italy's energy needs, and in particular its demand for electricity.

From the unification of Italy until the late Fifties, Italy's electric power was generated almost entirely by hydroelectric plants installed in the Alps. However, by 1960, exploitation of hydropower reached saturation (as shown in Fig. 1): no more waterways were available to economically produce meaningful amounts of electric power.

In the same years, the Eisenhower U.S. administration promoted adoption of nuclear technology for civilian applications, pledging that the U.S. would "devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." [2] Following the 1955 International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, the Italian government and private energy sector embraced nuclear power: in 1957, two power plants were ordered from U.S. and U.K. companies and funding from the World Bank was obtained for a third plant. [3,4]

Each plant was ordered by a distinct entity: the 150 MW "Garigliano" power plant in Sessa Aurunca was ordered by the (state-owned) Società Elettronucleare Nazionale (S.E.N.N.), the 200 MW Latina power plant was ordered by A.G.I.P. Nucleare, a branch of state-controlled ENI, whereas the 270 MW "Enrico Fermi" Westinghouse reactor in Trino Vercellese was ordered by (private-owned) Società Elettronucleare Italiana (S.E.L.N.I.). [5] Fig. 2 shows the location of the plants.

All three power plants were operational in 1963: Italy then ranked third worldwide in nuclear power generation, behind the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The rapid expansion of the country's nuclear capabilities, which had been driven by competition among public and private actors, was harshly criticized by leading political parties, especially on the left, as wasteful. [6,7]

Fig. 2: Location of nuclear power plants in Italy. [5,23] A green dot denotes a closed plant, a red dot denotes a canceled plant. (Source: F. Rossi)

The 1973 Oil Crisis

In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo in response to U.S. aid to Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The resulting increase in oil prices disproportionately affected the Italian energy sector, which was highly reliant on fuel oil for electric power generation. [9,10] The increase in price of fossil fuels also made nuclear power economically competitive. In 1975, the government published the first national energy plan (Piano Energetico Nazionale, or PEN), an attempt to predict future demand for electricity and plan construction of power plants in an organic fashion. [5] The 1975 PEN called for construction of twenty GW-class nuclear power plants for an overall installed base of 46 GW. However, critically, the government delegated the selection of the plant sites to regional administrations: these, in turn, were largely uncooperative and either delayed their decision or flatly refused to collaborate. [11,12] Between 1975 and 1986, a single power plant was ordered: the 2 GW Montalto di Castro power plant (shown in Fig. 4 and on the map in Fig. 2) started construction in 1982 and was near completion in 1986.

The Chernobyl Legacy

On April 26, 1986, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, released vast amounts of radioactive material in the atmosphere. While Italy experienced relatively low exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl radioactive cloud, the accident had a deep and lasting effect on Italian public opinion. [13]

Fig. 3: The closed Caorso nuclear power plant in 2005 (Courtesy of Simone Ramella. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the weeks following the accident, the governing parties pronounced themselves in favor of a "pause for reflection" on nuclear power. In 1987, voters were called to express themselves directly in a referendum: three ballots asked voters to (i) make the Parliament (as opposed to the government) ultimately responsible for selecting the location of future nuclear power plants, (ii) remove economic compensations for municipalities near a nuclear plant and (iii) cancel ENEL's investments in nuclear power plants located abroad. Also on the ballot were propositions on legislative immunity and civil responsibility of judges. [14] The referendum was held on Nov. 8-9 1987: all ballots passed with approval rates between 72% and 85%. Interestingly, public opinion seemed significantly more invested in the ballot on civil responsibility of judges than in those concerning Italy's nuclear power plants (see e.g. media coverage in Stampa Sera. [15,16]) Nevertheless, voters were overwhelmingly in favor of curtailing Italy's investment in nuclear power.

Months later, the government published a new Piano Energetico Nazionale that all but cancelled Italy's nuclear program. [17] The Caorso power plant was mothballed, the under-construction Montalto di Castro plant was repurposed to burn fossil fuels and the Sessa Aurunca, Latina and Trino power plants, already close to end-of-life, were dismantled. Construction of two new coal plants and expansion of two more was planned; finally, the government promoted energy-saving measures including demand-based electricity pricing.

The 2008 Nuclear Revival and Fukushima

Fig. 4: The Montalto di Castro power plant. On the left, the incomplete nuclear power plant On the right, the 3.6 GWh Alessandro Volta poly-fuel (fuel oil and natural gas) power plant. (Courtesy of Hengist Decius. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The topic of nuclear power saw very little discussion in the media in the two decades following the 1987 referendum. In the same years, Italy's dependence on fossil sources deepened, with a switch from fuel oil to natural gas as the main source of fuel.

In 2008, oil prices soared above $100/barrel, fueled by volatility in the Middle East. The price of natural gas tracked oil's. [18]

In addition, Italy's natural gas supply was threatened by diplomatic clashes between Russia, which provided 25% of natural gas consumed by Europe, and Ukraine, which hosted pipelines routing 80% of all gas imported from Russia to the E.U. [19]

In 2008, the Berlusconi government proposed an ambitious plan to build ten nuclear power plants that would provide 25% of Italy's electricity needs. The plan saw strong opposition from opposition parties and some regional administrations: in April 2010, a referendum asking voters to strike down Italy's nuclear plans was called. The ballot was scheduled for June 10-11, 2011.

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was struck by a tsunami caused by the Tōhoku earthquake. Damage caused by the tsunami induced the meltdown of three of the plant's six reactors and the release of radioactive material in the Pacific Ocean and in the atmosphere. [20] The nuclear accident had a tremendous effect on Italian public opinion: three months later, the ballot on nuclear saw an unusually high turnout of 57%, and 94.7% of voters rejected the government's nuclear plans, effectively shutting down Italy's nuclear program a second time. [21]


As of 2016, Italy's relationship with nuclear power remains chilly. Two generations of voters have overwhelmingly rejected nuclear power generation: thus, it is hard to imagine Italy investing in nuclear power plants in the near future. On the other hand, Italy is highly dependent on energy imports, either in the form of fuel (for what concerns electric power production, chiefly natural gas from North Africa and Russia) or directly as electricity (mainly from France, Switzerland and Slovenia, which, ironically, all operate nuclear power plants). [22] This makes the country especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the price and availability of energy sources. In 2008, public opinion warmed up significantly to the possibility of a nuclear plan before the Fukushima accident: it is not outlandish to think that, in a generation, nuclear power may return to the center of public debate.

© Federico Rossi. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Crafts and G. Toniolo, Economic Growth in Europe Since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[2] D. D. Eisenhower, "Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy," in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960) pp. 813-822.

[3] Didimo, "Risveglio Nucleare in Italia," La Nuova Stampa, 7 May 57.

[4] "World Bank Aids Italy On Nuclear Power Plan," New York Times, 2 Aug 57.

[5] L. De Paoli, L'Energia Nucleare (Il Mulino, Bologna, 2011).

[6] "Si Inasprisce la Polemica per gli Sperperi Nelle Centrali Nucleari," Stampa Sera, 19 Aug 63.

[7] "Si Allarga la Polemica per le Centrali Nucleari," La Stampa, 21 Aug 63.

[8] "Una Centrale Elettro-Eucleare nell'Ambito del Progetto Cirene," La Stampa, 3 Dec 68.

[9] Dati Statistici sull'Energia Elettrica in Italia 2014," Sistema Statistico Nazionale [Italian National Statistics System], 2015.

[10] A. Barone, "I Motivi della Scelta di Centrali Nucleari," La Stampa, 15 Dec 73.

[11] C. Simonelli, "Centrali Atomiche Contrastate," La Stampa, 8 May 77.

[12] B. Ghibaudi, "Centrali Nucleari: Ora Diventa Difficile Scegliere il Luogo per Poterle Installare," La Stampa, 7 Oct 77.

[13] M. D. Suro, "Chernobyl Cloud Passes, but Chill in Italy Lingers," New York Times, 27 May 86.

[14] Roberto Suro, "Italy Voting on Atom Power and Other Issues," New York Times, 9 Nov 87.

[15] G. Pennacchi, "E Venne l'Ora degli Insulti," Stampa Sera, 6 Nov 87.

[16] "La Gente Fa Sapere," Stampa Sera, 10 Nov 87.

[17] "Torniamo al Carbone," Stampa Sera, 17 Jun 88.

[18] E. Rosenthal, "Italy Embraces Nuclear Power," New York Times, 23 May 08.

[19] "EU Reaches Gas Deal With Ukraine," BBC News, 1 Aug 09.

[20] E. Strickland, "Explainer: What Went Wrong in Japan's Nuclear Reactors," IEEE Spectrum, 16 Mar 11.

[21] R. Donadio, "Italian Voters Come Out to Overturn Laws and Deliver a Rebuke to Berlusconi," New York Times, 13 Jun 11.

[22] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015," British Petroleum, June 2015.

[23] "Nuclear Power Reactors in the World," International Atomic Energy Agency, RDS-2/35, May 2015, p. 54.